By getting involved in the renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the control of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has completed the set of being involved in conflicts on almost every front he has been able to manage over the past decade. Becoming involved in military conflicts has become a hobby for Erdogan and a main weapon of distraction against the growing Turkish public disgruntlement with his tyrannical policies.
Last week, as Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited a war which ended in 1994 after six years of fighting over the region, the Turkish regime did not waste any time in fully supporting Azerbaijan in its claims in Nagorno-Karabakh. Vowing to support Azerbaijan militarily and in accordance with its recent actions in Libya and Syria, Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries and terrorist elements to face the Armenian army.
Historically, there has been no love lost between the Turks and the Armenians, with the horrific Armenian Genocide in the early decades of the last century that resulted in the massacre of over 1.5 million ethnic Armenians lurking in the collective mind. Turkey has never acknowledged the genocide even a century after its occurrence and despite its having occurred in the dying days of the former Ottoman Empire. The denial of the genocide has characterised Turkey’s political foreign policy since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Supporting Azerbaijan comes naturally to the Islamist Turkish regime, which has been attempting to bolster its influence in Muslim-majority countries. Through a series of trade deals, Turkey has become influential in Azerbaijan, and by August this year Azerbaijan had become the primary natural gas supplier of Turkey, a blessing to the Turks as it reduces their reliance on Russian gas supplies. Supporting Azerbaijan is also part of Erdogan’s megalomaniac dream of bolstering his comic self-image as the leader of Muslims around the world.
This is a dream that Turkey is paying a hefty price to realise, even if it will of course never be realised in fact. The new war over Nagorno-Karabakh has thus far claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians from both sides. The Azerbaijanis have claimed that 19 civilians have been killed in towns controlled by Azerbaijan as a result of Armenian shelling. Armenia has reported 104 deaths in its military and eight civilians killed. Both the Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been apparently covering up the real number of casualties, which according to some reports have been in the thousands during the first few days of the conflict.
Both countries are also not reporting their losses of equipment accurately, as the Armenians have claimed to have destroyed dozens of drones and tanks, while the Azerbaijanis have also claimed that they have destroyed a great deal of Armenian military equipment. Neither of the belligerents have acknowledged such losses. Furthermore, reports have indicated that 28 Syrian mercenaries have thus far died, with over a thousand of them having been deployed by Turkey on the battlefield over the last week.
Turkey hopes that these mercenaries will turn the tide of events without its having to deploy Turkish boots on the ground. The latter option would shake Erdogan’s already flimsy domestic image once news of casualties among Turkish soldiers starts to emerge. Moreover, it could also encourage Russia, an ally of Armenia, to get directly involved to prevent the defeat of the Armenian forces.
Despite the casualties, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been ignoring calls for a ceasefire, though Armenia has become more open to negotiations. Erdogan has rejected such calls issued by Russia, France and the US except on his terms. Armenia has also called upon the international community, the United Nations, and friends such as Russia and Egypt to interfere to stop the aggression of the Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces. But with Erdogan’s hopes of turning this conflict into Turkish gains to make up for the fiascos of his Libyan and Syrian interventions, the situation has become complicated unless other countries get involved militarily to force a ceasefire.
The growing costs of its military adventures abroad and of maintaining an army of mercenaries have been burdening Turkey’s coffers and the Turkish economy in general. Erdogan believes that these adventures will help him to attain ill-gotten political gains, but these will not come cheap. The Turkish lira has been falling on the international exchanges to reach a low of 7.8 lira against the dollar, and it is projected to lose more of its value. Calls for a boycott and expected European sanctions have left Turkey’s economic position battered and having negative prospects, according to international credit-rating agencies Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.
The European Union, though showing a firmer stance in recent months, remains far from displaying a united front against the Turkish aggression, even though this has also been directed at the three EU member states of Greece, Cyprus and France. The European Union in its latest warning to Turkey has specified 1 December as a deadline for Turkey to abide by its demands. But part of the European hesitation to impose economic sanctions on Turkey in the light of Erdogan’s megalomaniac adventures over the past decade stems from the Europeans’ fear that such sanctions might hurt them as well.
According to the German newspaper Die Welt, European banks could suffer badly as a result of economic sanctions on Turkey, as some of Europe’s biggest banks have lent Turkey and Turkish companies huge amounts of money over recent years. Spanish banks have provided loans amounting to $62 billion, French banks have lent $29 billion, British banks have injected $12 billion into Turkish banks, and German banks have lent $11 billion. Italian banks have invested about $8.7 billion.
These loans to Turkey from the major European banks amount to some $122.7 billion, and the Europeans fear losing such huge amounts in investments and loans to Turkey should European sanctions against the country come into effect and lead to a further dwindling of the Turkish economy. As a result, the Europeans are trying to withhold economic sanctions as the last card to be thrown on the table in facing up to Erdogan’s aggression. However, such measures will have to be taken if Erdogan maintains his current military adventures.
At present, Turkey is involved in wars and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Iraq and in political feuds that involve the support of terrorism against Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several other EU countries. Erdogan is cosying up to terrorism-supporting regimes such as those in Iran and Qatar and is directly supporting terrorist organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been creating enemies for his country at a rate not seen since the age of the European dictators in the 1930s, and in this respect alone he is outdoing his own dismal record.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly